East Tennessee State booked its ticket to the NCAA Tournament in thrilling fashion with a 79-74 win over UNC-Greensboro in the Southern Conference tournament championship game Monday.
The Buccaneers finished strong in the second half, 48-36, to rally from a seven-point halftime deficit against the Spartans. Senior guard T.J. Cromer led the way with 23 points on 6-of-13 shooting in the game, which gives East Tennessee State its first win over UNC-Greensboro in three tries this season.
The Spartans had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds with an open three-pointer, but it missed and ETSU hit the free throws to put it away.
The first two matchups between these two teams during the regular season both went to the Spartans, including a 72-66 victory exactly one week ago. Those losses were surely fresh in the minds of Cromer and the Buccaneers’ seniors, who will finally have the chance to go dancing after missing out their first three seasons.
Last year, ETSU reached the conference tournament title game, but fell short to top-seeded Chattanooga, 73-67. The team couldn’t come back after falling behind by 12 at halftime.
The rally was successful this time around, as the Buccaneers rolled in the second half at U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville. Four players including Cromer scored in double-figures, and Tevin Glass fell one rebound short of a double-double.
Both teams playing in this year’s title game finished 14-4 in conference play during the regular season as part of a three-way tie for first place with Furman. The Paladins got upset by Samford, which left the door open for the Southern’s other two juggernauts to play their way to the title game.
This is the first NCAA tournament appearance by East Tennessee State since making it back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010. It’s a chance at their first victory in the NCAAs since 1992, and there’s an outside shot at just the second Sweet 16 trip in school history. The only other one came all the way back in 1968 in the Buccaneers’ first tournament appearance.